McFadden: Tackling social and emotional needs of students |

McFadden: Tackling social and emotional needs of students

Brett W. McFadden
The Union Columnist
Brett McFadden

Our high school students are reporting higher incidents of family and personal trauma, along with social and emotional challenges, than their counterparts of previous generations. This is a national trend and Nevada County has not been immune from its impacts and ramifications.

Consider this: 43% of Nevada Joint Union High School students report suffering chronic sadness and/or hopelessness, and 27% said they have seriously considered suicide in the last 12 months.

Social, emotional and mental health challenges have always been present among adolescents, but there were often societal stigmas that suppressed discussion and early identification. Fortunately, those stigmas are lifting and we have become more open about their existence and the need to do something about them.

In this month’s column, I will highlight how the high school district is helping to minimize the chances that students with emotional disturbances or emotional fragility “fall through the cracks.” We do this by ensuring they have access to counseling, support, mental health and other services.

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Some students who have been assessed as emotionally disturbed have experienced one or more traumatic events in their lifetimes. Traumatized youth will often perform lower academically, are suspended and expelled more often, and are more frequently provided special education or related services.

Students’ emotional distress can increase as the structure of families breaks down and adolescents split time between different households or experience unstable living conditions. Some students can become victims of sexual or physical violence at home or in the community. Others will suffer from neglect or deprivation.

In our high school district, more than 40% of our students face challenges associated with not just poverty, but multi-generational poverty. Twenty years ago, that figure was less than 10%. Poverty, trauma and emotional disorders often go hand-in-hand.

That is why Intervention Coordinators at our high schools collaborate with staff and parents to help students overcome social and emotional barriers. The process may include referring a student to the Nevada County Behavioral Health Department or private therapists, offering individual and/or small group counseling on campus, or connecting a student to local youth organizations such as NEO or The Friendship Club.

A district team comprised of a counselor, school psychologist, nurse and therapist has created a Mental Health Protocol for Suicide Risk that helps staff members evaluate and respond to students who communicate an intention to harm themselves.

In some cases, a school team member will write a “Safety Plan” for students who have attempted or are at risk of committing suicide or other self-harm. The plan is geared toward students who have returned to school following hospitalization due to a mental health crisis. The plan provides the student and school staff with written, effective strategies for responding to stressful situations and steps to follow until the student is safe.

What’s Up Wellness screenings help identify students struggling with mental issues and assess the risk of suicide, depression, and anxiety. Our student assistance program, STARS, provides short term, on-campus counseling.

Most of our high schools boast a Wellness Center, where students can drop-in for a quiet place to regroup or receive crisis counseling between class periods. Earlier this school year, the district counseling team organized the community-wide showing of the award winning documentary film about anxiety called “Angst.”

At Nevada Union, the RISE program is a special education program specifically designed for students who have been identified as emotionally disturbed. In small group settings of no more than 10, RISE students receive additional support from paraprofessionals, a specialized curriculum in areas such as social/emotional skills, and regular weekly “groups” administered by a licensed therapist. The students take some traditional high school classes as well.

The Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Office, in cooperation with local first responder agencies, has created a “Handle with Care” alert. When a student has been exposed to a traumatic event, no details are given by first responders, but school staff members are notified and asked to be sensitive to the student’s needs. Perhaps the student is given time during class to visit a nurse or counselor, or homework or tests are forgiven or delayed.

We can also convene SMART meetings, a Special Multi-Agency Resource Team that addresses the needs of students and families in crisis. The team links families to vital services to keep students safe, healthy, in class, and out of trouble. The team consists of representatives from Child Protective Services, CALWorks, Public Health, Juvenile Probation, Behavioral Health, and other agencies.

Our high school district has made social, emotional, and mental wellness a priority, and I agree with our Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Dan Frisella’s assessment. “Mental health issues are on the rise,” says Dan. “We are working to give our staff the tools they need to educate students, while being culturally responsive to the increased social-emotional needs of our students.”

Not surprising, addressing students’ emotional and mental health needs takes a greater share of the district’s budgetary and staff resources than it did 20 years ago. This, of course, will impact other services, courses, and programs the district can provide for the community.

But in the long run, this is an investment in the long term success and well-being of our community’s most important resource – our youth. A dollar spent on early intervention, saves our community hundreds over the course of a lifetime.

While the overall picture may sound bleak, it’s not hopeless. Our district has become adept at confronting these challenges, and we will continue to implement creative and effective solutions to address the social/emotional and mental health challenges confronting many of our students.

Nevada Joint Union High School District Superintendent Brett W. McFadden writes a monthly column for The Union. He has more than 28 years of education leadership and policy experience statewide. Freelance writer Lorraine Jewett contributed to this column.

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